An Original Multi-Farm CSA
Many years ago, when the organic movement (and its farmers) were much younger, I remember hearing of a great marketing idea that was being tried in New Hampshire — a multi-farm CSA! At the time I remember thinking: “That sounds great! What a nice way to fill in for each other’s deficiencies, provide customers with crops one farmer is not so great at growing but others seem to raise easily, or manage a weekend off once in awhile.” But then I started thinking about the downsides: “I wonder what happens when two farmers both want to provide the same product, when everyone else thinks the quality of Farmer Brown’s lettuce is slipping but she doesn’t see it that way, or when I think my produce is not getting a fair share of the CSA’s income?”
One thing or another kept me plenty busy and I never followed up on that New Hampshire brainchild. Until now. In October I realized that this issue of The Natural Farmer on Organic Aggregation was a perfect opportunity for me to check out that misty memory. Was it still alive? Had crusty New Hampshirite (that is the official term, says the Government Publishing Office, honest!) farmers managed to work together this long? Were there fatalities?
So I contacted Dave Trumble of Good Earth Farm in Weare, one of the original farmers who put the idea together, and arranged a visit to the Local Harvest CSA in Concord, NH.
This is the 15th continuous season for the CSA, and from the start they have been housed at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Concord. It has a nice location less than 5 minutes from Interstate 89 in West Concord. The organization is run by the participating farmers, currently 6 of them. All the produce and fruit is certified organic and has been that way from the beginning. Meat and dairy options have been offered at times, but none are available right now. In those cases, if no certified organic product is available the CSA may decide to allow non-organic to be sold. In the past a dairy farm brought yogurt and milk, but they were a small operation and had to send someone for the whole day so they decided not to keep coming.
The CSA was popular right from the beginning.
“When we started our membership went up, up, up,” recalls David. “I wish we could have capitalized on that more. But competition has grown fierce around here. It is hard even to keep your old members now. Five years ago we had a hundred more members here than we do now.”
As a way to serve more people and those farther away, the CSA has added a second day when shares are delivered to a number of sites around southern New Hampshire. The satellites have helped bring in some members, but the competition is still strong.
“Last year was hard for farmers because of the drought,” explains part time CSA staffer Anna Muncy, “and a lot of them didn’t get crops of many vegetables they normally raised. So we got some people who left those CSAs and joined ours because of the multi-farm aspect – we were getting product that some individual farms were not able to raise. This spring was really rough too, cold and wet, and some farms had trouble then, as well. Some CSAs delayed their opening, or even just didn’t have some items at all. So a multi-farm CSA gives the members a little protection.”
“Every farm being certified organic is very helpful in reaching out to new people,” adds David. “Without that it might be hard to distinguish ourselves.”
Of course all the farms also have other markets besides the Local Harvest CSA — their own CSAs or farmers markets, farm stands, restaurants, wholesale sales, etc. So in the summer it is hard to get the farmers to a meeting to make decisions, but in the winter they meet multiple times to talk about changes in prices, locations, purchases they are going to make, etc. They also talk about who is going to grow what crops and if someone drops a crop who is going to pick it up.
“At these winter meetings,” Anna explains, “we try to even out what we take from each farm, but if you have been a main producer of a crop you can’t have someone else coming in and taking all of that production from you if you are still growing it. You have some rights to what you have been growing.”
Farms get paid every week and bring an invoice for what they deliver.
The six farms that currently contribute produce to the CSA are Blue Ox in Enfield, Good Earth in Weare, Middle Branch in New Boston, The Vegetable Ranch in Warner, Stoneridge in Bradford, and Kearsarge Gore in Warner. Each of the 6 has a representative on the CSA board and some serve as officers. Everyone votes on any change in prices. The part time staff is Anna and Erin Insley, plus Dave and a bookkeeper.
Steve Fulton, who farms 10 acres plus three high tunnels at Blue Ox, says: “I have been involved with Local Harvest CSA since year one. It has been good to work with other farmers. I think that it has helped my farm’s profitability. CSA is better than Farmers Markets because everything that is harvested is sold, and I don’t need to pay someone to work at the Farmers Markets. CSA is a steadier source of income than restaurants and offers the benefit of direct sale prices — which are far better than wholesale. I grow heirloom tomatoes because I have markets that pay decent prices for them. But mostly I grow hybrids because they yield very well. I have found that most people are way more interested in cosmetics than flavor!”
“I have a small CSA of my own,” he continues, “along with Local Harvest, and also sell to restaurants, so I grow the full range of crops. I grow a lot of lettuce, tomatoes, shallots, onions, peppers, carrots, beets, and winter squash because I have good markets for them. Before I farmed for market, I grew a garden for my own use, and always avoided chemical inputs for food safety issues. It seemed natural to extend those methods when I began to market my produce, and especially because it seemed that more people were interested in buying organically grown foods. Ten years ago I had read a Gene Logsdon book that promoted small farms and cottage industries and that stuck with me. I enjoy being outdoors and wanted a business of my own and decided to try farming.
“Profitability,” he concludes, “is the biggest challenge in farming — that and drainage of the fields. I ask myself several times during the season ‘why do I farm?’ because I find it very difficult to make any sort of money farming. I would not encourage young people to farm. I recommend that anyone that wants to farm get a good education in a profession or trade, like accounting, engineering, teaching, etc. so that they can afford to farm or have some skill/training to fall back on.”
Dave Trumble, who raises organic seedlings (vegetables, herbs and flowers) at Good Earth Farm and specializes in tomatoes and root crops, says: “We grow just a handful of crops for Local Harvest CSA: bedding plants, greenhouse tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, beets and peaches. We ran our own 100+ member CSA for over ten years before Local Harvest. Then we had two children and I became a stay at home dad. Switching from growing 40 crops to growing a smaller number of crops was the only way for me to remain a farmer.
“Like a lot of things,” Dave observes, “the best and hardest parts of something spring from the same root. Farming is both a way of life and a job. Farming is right outside your door and is with you every day throughout the seasons. It is a real blessing to live on a farm and have such good work to do each and every day. The hardest part is treating farming like a job and applying a financial perspective to your work as well. In addition to farming, I have a part-time winter job and my wife, Linda, is a school teacher. We could not exist on our farm income alone. The farm pays for itself, including all repairs and equipment needed, and also provides a share of our family income. If we were to add up all farm income and subtract all farm expenses, we make about $10-12 an hour as farmers. We sell at least 80% of our produce through this CSA.
He concludes: “I would encourage my children or grandchildren to become farmers and would be glad to help them in any way I could. On the other hand, I would never want to push them into farming. I think everyone is happiest and does their best work if they do something that they love. Farming is hard work and the financial rewards are low. Mostly I watch my children find the things that they love to do and encourage them with those activities.”
Bob Bower and Jennifer Ohler own and operate the Kearsarge Gore Farm with much help from their children, Sam and Abby, and a small but enthusiastic farm crew. The farm has 7 acres and 2 hoop houses in certified organic produce, 20 acres in pasture and hayfield, and 450 acres of woodlot.
According to the owners: “We grow a full range of market vegetables and flowers, all sold locally through CSAs, farmers markets, and directly from the farm. We also raise a small flock of Dorset sheep, several pigs, and Devon cows. Throughout the year we cut cordwood, and in the spring we put out 2,000 taps for maple syrup. The entire farm is off-grid, using solar panels for electricity. We have made our living through the sales of organic produce, cordwood and maple syrup for 27 years. CSA members are welcome to come and visit us at the farm.”
I met Sarah Hansen, one of the farm workers there, when I visited Local Harvest. She was delivering produce, including some Italian giant dandelion greens she was very excited about.
“They are lots better,” she stresses, “than things you’ll find in your yard. You can make a mean dandelion pesto with these. We just need to do a little information at the farmers markets to help people — how to use things they aren’t familiar with.”
Sarah used to run the CSA before Anna and still helps out making signage and sketches of produce. “I started working on the farm five years ago,” she reveals. “I feel like if I had grown up on a farm maybe I’d want to get away and do something else. But being in a community where there are a lot of young people is very helpful. A lot of our friends are getting into farming. That way you don’t lose your community.”
Sarah says Kearsarge Gore Farm probably sells 25 or 30% of their farm product at the CSA. Roger Noonan farms on over 40 acres at Middle Branch Farm with his wife, Lori, and their two children, Heather and Jake, who are in their 20s and quite active on the farm. Lori has an off-farm job and helps with the farming; Roger farms full-time. Middle Branch Farm is currently the largest certified organic farm in NH.
“I farm organically,” Roger states, “because it makes economic sense and I believe in the process. When the focus is on building the soil with compost to feed the plants, instead of relying on bought-in petroleum based, chemical inputs, organic farming makes the most sense.
I discovered this back in high school when I found my grandfather’s copy of the 1949 book, The Organic Method on the Farm by J.I. Rodale. The book talked a lot about composting and that was very interesting to me. At Marlboro College in VT, a school full of farmer/back-to-the-land types, I was introduced to Plowman’s Folly, by Edward Faulkner. That book focused on the depletion of soils from traditional farming methods that destroyed soil structure and made up for it with chemical inputs; Faulkner explained how natural farming not only builds soil but creates healthy plants that resist pests. It completed the picture for me. Organic farming is more about soil building for me than the pesticide issue. After college I went on to do several other things and then started to farm about 10 years ago.
“I grow a full range of vegetables because I run a full season CSA on my farm,” he continues, “as well as grow for Local Harvest. I raise potatoes, winter squash, peppers and tomatoes both for Local Harvest and for some wholesale accounts – if I can focus on several crops instead of all the crops, I can become more effective and reduce the cost of production. That is a plan for the future. We also grow lots of hay for sale and for our beef and pork production.
“I encourage my kids to farm,” he adds. “People are becoming more aware of their food and that’s important. People need to be connected to the place they live and eating the food from the farm next door or down the road is a great way to do that. I am eager to see the farmer have a valued place in society once again.”
Doug and Carol Troy started Stoneridge Farm nine years ago as a way to live a more rural lifestyle and allow their children to experience another side of life.
“There are a lot of reasons to farm organically,” they explain. “The concept of being sustainable and caring for the land is important to us. As a family farm, everyone in our house spends an enormous number of hours in the field and with our products, along with eating the fruits of our labors every day. Therefore it is essential that our fields are safe and we are comfortable with the way we grow. Organic was the clear decision. Growing organically seems to make sense from a business perspective. In a world where most of our conventionally grown food comes from government subsidized farms and imports, a small farmer needs to do something different in order to succeed, and we felt that the path of growing the most flavorful products would enhance our chance of success. It is also nice to know we have a positive carbon footprint. Not everyone can say that in today’s world.”
At Stoneridge they grow a wide variety of crops, but specialize in fruits and flowers.
“We picked fruits,” Doug and Carol continue, “because we have a family of fruit lovers, and we grow a considerable selection of flowers because they are fun and different. Farming is a challenging occupation, just like any small business, but when you add in the weather, bugs, and economic challenges, it seems to be a bit more risky than most businesses. One of the things you learn early on at a farm is that you are never caught up on your work. If you are finished planting, you need to weed, if you are finished weeding, you need to water, then you need to tend to pests and so on, it just goes forever. You could add ten people and still be behind so you must always be prioritizing your work.”
“One of the rewards of farming’” they agree, “is that we get to work outside in the fresh air in a place we like to be. There is always a new challenge on the farm, and when we are able to meet that challenge it is rewarding. And like most family businesses, we get to spend time with our family.”
Larry Pletcher of the Vegetable Ranch will be farming on 8 to 10 acres next year. He was the president of NOFA-NH and feels strongly about organic production: “I started to farm organically because I am concerned about the health effects of pesticides and persistent chemical fertilizers. I believe that organic produce is better tasting and healthier for the consumer. I grow a wide range of produce – over 40 different vegetables – because it would be dull to grow only a few items. Also, diversity means that I will have food to offer despite current challenges such as blight or bad weather. No matter how bad the weather is – some selection of vegetables will love it.
“Do I make a livable profit,” he asks? “Not an easy question. For the last eight years I have always made a profit. But for the first few years I would not have been able to live only off the farm profits. I was fortunate enough to be able to invest early profits into farm infrastructure. I think we have now arrived at a point where the farm is financially sustainable. Farming is all about scale – not so large as to be industrial or tempted by shortcuts – but large enough so that proceeds from crop sales will be enough to support a family. I would encourage anyone’s children or grandchildren to continue farming – but only if they loved it.
“I have been a grower for Local Harvest CSA,” he adds, “since its inception. It has helped my farm be more profitable by providing a definite market for a broad range of produce. More importantly, the CSA provides income early in the season when crop sales are scarce. In my view, a mix of different markets is as important as a wide selection of crops. CSAs and farmer’s markets play different roles in marketing produce, but are both critical to a profitable farm.”
Larry estimates that 20% of his sales come from the CSA. His main market is Concord Hospital, where the Vegetable Ranch supplies the food service and sells an organic share of produce each Tuesday for $18 that anyone can pick up.
“A lot of the employees have a card that they swipe through the cafeteria line,” he explains, “so they can buy our share that way. That has been pretty good for us. We’re doing about 45 shares that way. We also sell to A Market in Manchester, the Concord Coop, some restaurants, and a kid who is starting to get a food hub started out in Bradford, near us. They have been buying stuff every week.”
Local Harvest shares are sold in three seasonal groups and come in up to three sizes, depending on the household’s interest in vegetables.
The Summer share runs for 18 weeks and comes in 3 sizes. A basic share gets you 5 to 6 items per week and costs $385. A standard share provides 7 to 9 items each week and costs $570. A full share, for the veggie consuming family offers 11 to 13 items for $810.
A Spring share of only three weeks is for those who love greens and can’t wait to be eating veggies after a winter off. Two sizes include a standard share at $89 or a full share at $135. The Fall share lasts 5 weeks and the standard one is priced at $155 while the full is $232.
In addition to any share, you can preorder one or two loaves of organic bread for $5 each.
The CSA runs on Wednesdays with the farmers coming between 12:30 and 2:00 to drop off and the members picking up their shares from 2:30 until 6:30. Three rows of tables are set up, with the first row containing the items for a basic share, the second row the items for the standard share, and the third the full share items.
The first step in the weekly process is determining how many shares will be picked up. Members are asked to let Anna know before Friday if they will be away and not picking up their share the next week. If they are timely, they can get a double share for a later week to make up for the ‘vacation’ week missed.
Then on the weekend Anna sends Dave Trumble the number of shares that will be picked up for each site, each day, and each share size. The farmers also send Dave a list of all the crops that they are going to have available on Wednesday and Thursday.
“They’ll say ‘I’m going to have 50 eggplants or so many pounds of this,’” explains Anna. “Then Dave sits there and looks at what everyone is offering and how many we need and does matching magic. He sends the list out to everyone and they bring what he ordered.
“Of course Dave doesn’t necessarily take everything that is offered,” she continues. “If 50 of something is available he might take 40 so we can give people more choices. This CSA is set up like a market style CSA. That means people go through and make some choices. They might have a number of baskets where they need to take either one thing or another.
“Then, every Tuesday morning,” Anna concludes, “we send out a newsletter about what we’re bringing, after we touch base with everyone. So people who come on Wednesday have at least one day notice, and 2 days for Thursday people we deliver to. That way they have some time to consider what they want to buy if they are going to the store. For choice options we note how many of something we will bring, so folks know to show up early to be sure they get one of the 20 cherry tomato bags that week. There definitely is a difference in coming here at 2:30 versus 5:30.”
The Wednesday pickup is a real social occasion with people greeting each other and discussing weather, politics, and the state of the produce. As for that, I was amazed how good the produce looked. Large, uniform, clean and appealing vegetables were everywhere, as if I was in a photo shoot rather than a CSA. Options were clearly labeled when there was a choice, with plenty of each one available – at least when the first customers showed up just before 2:30.
When customers first come in they sign off on a list. That way the CSA can keep track of members who don’t come for several weeks so they can find out if there is a problem. Any produce left at the close of day is donated to a food bank.
“We have a lot of people who come right away,” says Anna. “They like to have the first choice of what to pick! They say: ‘No, I don’t want any of this and I like the peppers in this bag.’ Some people really, really like those choices, and other people are like: ‘Give me a bag of vegetables.’ Some people don’t like choosing which bag of peppers to take. They say: ‘Well, which bag of peppers is better.’ And we say: ‘They’re all good. We didn’t bring the bad peppers!’”
The swap table today is quite popular. I see a number of items on it after a few customers have been there – different items than the random vegetables initially thrown on it to get things started. People regularly trade out items in their shares with stuff on the table.
“We have members whose reasons for joining,” says Anna, “are all over the map. Some do it because they want to eat better, some want to support local food, Some like the CSA idea, we have a lot of families – that is the number one group, also people in one person households, then some in their early twenties and all ages in between. But the most average is a family unit.
“Of course not everyone who joins stays as a member,” she continues. “There is a lot of competition for CSAs in the area, also lots of farmers markets. There are also a lot of people who don’t cook and don’t eat at home. And some people don’t like that they can’t take home exactly what they want. They don’t eat all the vegetables in the share. Then some move and some like it so much they start growing in their yard!”
I talked with some of the buyers.
Catherine Wittliff has been sharing her share with a friend for four years. “I’m happy with it,” she says. “I like supporting local and I like organic. It is a big treat to come here. There is great quality and you are forced into trying new things – stuff I’ve never had like the kohlrabi, the bok choi, garlic scapes. They send an email out so we kind of know what is coming up. But I usually try to do my grocery shopping after coming here. It is just my husband and myself at home. My kids are out of the nest. We eat mostly at home, we don’t go out even once a month. My husband travels and has to eat out then. So coming every week is a lot for us. That is why I share it. I love this kind of thing. This is the only CSA I know of in the greater Concord area.”
A woman who refused to give her name and declined having her picture taken said: “I’ve been a member for 7 years. It is really important to support local farmers. I probably spend more on fresh local produce because I purchase this. I think you end up paying a little bit more. But you end up with really nice looking leeks compared with what you get in the grocery store. When I started out there were four of us at home, and now there are only two. But we eat a lot of vegetables. I don’t use kale, but I put that on the swap table. This time of year we eat salad or grilled vegetables like eggplant. My daughter is coming home and wants kale, which is not my favorite (groans). But we have to support the farmers. Why? Because I don’t want to be buying all my produce from somewhere that I’m not sure how they are taking care of my vegetables. I don’t want goats in the same field from which I’m getting tomatoes. These people are very nice, very caring. If you have any problems they always try to deal with them. It is a nice place to do business!
Troy has been a member for 2 years. “I get healthy vegetables that last longer than the day you bring them home,” he announces gleefully. “I believe in supporting the little guy and you get a healthier food this way than you are going to get in the grocery store. I’m buying for my wife and myself. And some of the stuff we can’t eat we will share out with other people.”
Bill and Kathleen are a married couple who have been members for six years. “We like that it is organic and local both,” they say. “It is a good deal and we are supporting the community. We just cook for the two of us. We weren’t organic eaters but we heard about it and decided it was a good idea.”
Debbie has been a member for four years. “I thought if I joined I’d be forced to eat more vegetables,” she recalls. “I’m a fan of local, but organic I could give or take — at least when I joined. I’m now getting a little more concerned about the idea, so yes. I like the system generally, but I wouldn’t mind more flowers. I get them whenever there is an opportunity. They do dried flowers in the fall. For the most part I buy for two of us, but I get the full share. It is sometimes a challenge to eat it all (laughs). I don’t eat out. I never have. I’m over in East Concord so it is a pain to come over here. I know they have a delivery there, but I like to pick what I’m getting. We were typically eating potatoes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, celery and cucumbers before we joined. Now I know what to do with leeks, I roast beets, I buy eggplants.“
Richard didn’t want to talk but said he had been a member several years. “I lose track how many,” he sighs. “I’m very happy with it. I have trouble using it all, it is just me. I cook at home mostly and I like to support the local economy. It is really nice stuff – high quality.”
On Thursdays the farmers deliver again in the morning and the staff pack about 100 bags for members at the delivery sites.
“We take them to all the different sites where members pick up,” explains Anna. “We have three here in Concord, one in Bedford and one in Hooksett. Kearsarge Gore farm has a van that can take the 30 or 35 bins that we need to pack all the shares into. We share the driving. We also have a share distribution at a state office building that is only for state employees – we don’t publicize that. We can get people that work there but live 45 minutes or more away. These are people who are seeking out organic food and this is a good way for them to get it even though they don’t live in Concord. Sometimes people buy a share for their mom or their kid, too.
“Those types of members show up,” she continues, “grab their bag, and turn in their empty bag from the week before. There is no charge for delivery, and the CSA is glad to add a new site if at least 15 people will join to pick up there.
The CSA has a large database of past members who are kept informed about the operation and invited to rejoin. The staff also go to different events to publicize the CSA. Especially in the winter.